California bill could give juveniles in prison for life a second chance
The California State Legislature is considering a bill that aims to re-examine juveniles’ life prison terms after 15 years.
August 18th, 2011
12:00 PM ET

California bill could give juveniles in prison for life a second chance

A controversial bill headed for a vote in California has stirred up conversation again about whether life sentences for juveniles need to be re-examined.

Under the state bill, which received a key vote Wednesday to allow it to head to the Assembly floor for a vote, some juvenile offenders would get the opportunity for release.

At the heart of the bill is a question that's been pondered by legal scholars, law enforcement and even the Supreme Court: Should juveniles who have committed crimes that led to a life prison sentence be given a second chance?

The bill, introduced by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would allow juveniles to ask a court to re-examine their sentences after they have served 15 years for their crime. Yee, who is also a child psychologist, argues that at certain ages, kids don't have the full capacity to understand their crimes, and locking juveniles up without giving them a chance to show they have gained that capacity isn't the right answer.

“The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” Yee said in a statement. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors."

California law allows kids as young as 14 to be sentenced to life without parole for certain crimes.

Yee said that no other countries besides the U.S. have life in prison as a sentence for juveniles. And in California alone, 290 kids have been given that sentence.

He said the goal is not to pass a bill that is a "get-out-of-jail-free card." Instead, he wants to allow more chances to rehabilitate children if they are fit to have a reduced sentence and show they have changed since they were young children.

But opponents say the bill would traumatize crime victims and their families.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle that families might "re-experience" trauma when the convicted inmate petitions for a new sentence. That could happen up to three times – once for each time inmate could petition the court for a new sentence.

"This is not something you get closure with. It's something that stays with these people all the time," he told the paper. "There is another remedy. ... If some kind of brain development issue has changed, you can always remedy that by going to the governor and seeking a commutation."

But commutation is not the option that advocates want. Instead, they want a process to allow the inmates to ask the court to reassess them. Elizabeth Calvin, a children's rights advocate with Human Rights Watch, argued that if teens aren't considered to have the brain development and judgment for other things in life - like voting - their judgment, when it comes to crime, should also be viewed that way. And children sentenced to life in prison should get the chance to show they have changed the way they make decisions, she said.

“In California, a sentence of life without parole is a sentence to die in prison,” Calvin said in a statement. “Teenagers are still developing.  No one – not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor – can look at a 16-year-old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult. It makes sense to re-examine these cases when the individual has grown up and becomes an adult.

"There’s no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”

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Filed under: California • Courts • Crime • Justice
soundoff (368 Responses)
  1. Layne

    A second chance? I don't have the statistics and I'm too lazy to Google them, but I'd bet a Dr Pepper that at least 90% of the kids incarcerated for life aren't first time offenders.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richie

      I agree with Layne. Let them grow prison.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Corrupter

      What does it matter if it is not the child's first offense? They are still a child. Therefore, you can't treat them as an adult... because they are NOT and adult. You can't treat them as a giraffe, because they are not a giraffe.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Karl B

    Sure, as soon as the VICTIM gets a second chance at life, then give the KILLER a second chance, and not until.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Very well put, Karl.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |

    I am a strong believer that giving a person a life sentence is just a waste of money and space. i don't quite understand it, why is it alright to lock them in a cage till they die but not to just kill them? prison should be about rehabilitation, not about locking someone away because they don't want to deal with them in society. just kill them and save us some money. or heck start up some gladiatorial games that would raise some money for our country... oh wait we are to "civilized" for that

    August 18, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tom

    Let them rot.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. gotthumbs

    Just make sure any released are required to stay in California.

    Lets wait a few years to see if they can truly be rehabilitated before you release convicted criminals on the rest of america.

    Don't let California export their criminals to the rest of the nation just because they can't run a financially sound state.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. rey

    all depends on the crime and their age.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Justen beiber

    Let them die. Always kill there parents for not raising kids right.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Marci

    The proposed bill is only giving convicted children the opportunity to have their sentence reviewed after 15 years. What is the harm? I am a firm believer that "Some" kids do not understand the consequences of their actions and in some cases, especially after serving 15 years of a life sentence that they should have an opportunity for a second chance in life. Each case obviously has to be reviewed on an individual basis.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Freshies

    Anyone else having issues viewing comments on other CNN articles?

    August 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. GoldenGate

    I live in CA and had no idea juveniles as young as 14 were sentenced to life in prison. I Googled this quickly and it can even happen for nonhomicide. There are 8 states that allow this and Florida has the most. Most of this sentencing happened during a period of fear of juvenile crime in the 90s and fear of losing tourists in Florida. This is classic "issue of the moment" law making. It sounds good, and its hard to vote against, but its really not thought out well. Time to rethink it.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ruben

    I agree. there must be a new chance for these kids, but conditions to be met have to be pretty tight.....

    August 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. crystal

    I don't usually post a comment, but I do agree that a reassessment for some cases would be in order. Yes I am associated with someone who was a victim and I want to cry everytime I think about it. But to lock someone up at the age of 15 for the rest of their life.....come on now...... I believe those people outh there scamming and stealing people hard earned money and/or retirement should be we lock up the person who stole the money but let the family keep what is in their name....oldest trick in the book......putting possessions in others name so if caught....all is not gone..

    August 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jennifer

    I live in California as well – but I say let them rot. Life sentences are not handed out on a whim – we don't need habitual criminals released back into society.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mervyn

    They didnt end up with a life bid on their first, second, or third offense. UNless it was a DNA mistake, too bad.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • GoldenGate

      mervyn – so they are 14 or 15 and had all these priors they were convicted of – when did they have time to commit the latest crime? Your argument doesn't make sense. Some of these crimes aren't even murder. A quick read makes it sound like these are basically kids that scared the court – these are being challenged based on the 8th? amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. Locking up a kid as young as 14 for life with no possibility to get out classifies as both in my opinion.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Uneducated

    I would guess after spending 15 years in prison, you're not going to be a upstanding citizen...

    Repeat offender, most likely?

    August 18, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
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